Eat My Words: Patagonia treads lightly

I’ve been waiting to write about outdoor apparel company Patagonia pretty much all my life. My parents packed me in the stuff for my first ski lesson, and ever since, I ‘ve managed to stay extremely faithful to their products. Even on a beer-burrito-bagel budget at college in Boulder where crunchy detractors were more than happy to point out my preference for “Patagucci.”

So when I finally got the choice assignment from Fast Company, you could say I was a little worried about my ability to remain objective. Heck, when I went up to meet with their sustainability team in Ventura, I was wearing a Patagonia shell and carrying a Patagonia backpack. It was like wearing the band’s shirt to the concert.

Patagonia launched the Footprint Chronicles quietly last year, short web videos that track the impact of five of their products. You get introduced to the woman who’s making your polo shirt in at a factory Thailand, and peer into the eyes of the Merino sheep who’ll be sheared for your crew in New Zealand. These videos are just the latest of these epic journeys that Patagonia loves to package for their fans. And the audience loves it. After all, this is a company that provides a guide to climbing schools on their website, a series of online essays detailing a grizzly bear’s migration through Montana, and a multimedia saga of surfer-filmmaker-brothers The Malloys driving a biodiesel truck from Bend, Oregon to the tip of Baja.

The key phrase for the Footprint Chronicles, as with all corporate greening practices lately, is transparency, and Patagonia vowed to show all of their findings, the good and the bad. But there seemed to be very little bad afoot at Patagonia. Employees Jill Dumain and Jen Rapp enthusiastically took me on a tour of an organic cotton factory where we all snapped as many photos as we wanted of the sunny, spotless warehouse blasting rock music. They hosted me for a day in Patagonia’s Ventura headquarters, a series of refurbished buildings where the bathrooms show you where to toss your paper towels for composting, free on-site day care lets employees hang with their kids during breaks, and the kitchen serves homemade, mostly-organic meals like fish tacos and cabbage slaw. If you want me to be objective, you should definitely not serve me homemade, mostly-organic meals like fish tacos and cabbage slaw. With this really awesome spicy mayo.

But after extensive mayo-free research, I decided that Patagonia is probably walking the walk better than any other company out there. Their colleagues I interviewed in the industry agreed.

I guess I’d always known Patagonia was a leader for environmental issues but I don’t buy their products for those reasons. I buy them because I don’t have to buy very many of them at all. My favorite pair of Patagonia long underwear pants—the very first thing I grab when I’m going skiing—are from 1996. And they still work great.

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  • niem

    Great article. I know I’m late on this post but I thought I’d just toss out one more reason to make your world more like Patagonia’s world…look into 1% For the Planet, an organization founded by Yvon Chouinard and his fly fishing buddy Craig Mathews in 2001. As of this post it’s almost 900 companies strong donating to almost 1,600 non-profits worldwide. Chouinard called it an “earth tax” for businesses. is there anyone cooler than Yvon Chouinard? Nope.